New Year is approaching, so what does 2020 have in store for the EFL? Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) shares 6 Football League Predictions.
Fulham to miss out on promotion
It is easy to see why Fulham were well-fancied for promotion in pre-season. They added wide stars Anthony Knockaert and Ivan Cavaleiro to a squad that already included Aleksandar Mitrovic, Tom Cairney and much of the Play-Off Final winning crew from 2018.
There are, though, two key differences between that 2017-18 side and this current one. Firstly, they do not possess a rampaging right-back like Ryan Fredericks proving pace, width and thrust, forcing the play into the final third to push the opponents back. Secondly, they do not possess a midfield metronome who can control proceedings from the base of the midfield.
Kevin McDonald did that role under Slavisa Jokanovic but the former Wolves man has only started one league game so far this term – and crucially, there is not an alternative to him in the squad.
With Josh Onomah often starting as the most advanced midfielder, we have often seen Tom Cairney and Stefan Johansen undertake deeper roles but that does not suit them because, as we saw in 2017-18, both like to play off-the-cuff.
Johansen needs the freedom to press and link-up with teammates in the final third, while Cairney requires the licence to float, offer a supporting option and dictate wherever space opens up.
Without a McDonald equivalent giving Johansen and Cairney the leeway they want, Fulham are wide open.
Millwall to reach the play-offs
Millwall have improved significantly under Gary Rowett, especially in terms of their away form. The Lions accrued a paltry four points from six road trips under Neil Harris and caretaker Adam Barrett, but a whopping 11 from six under Rowett.
The former Birmingham manager favoured 4-2-3-1 at St Andrews but, since arriving at the Den, he has leant towards a 3-4-3 system, with Jed Wallace freed up on the right of the attacking trio, supporting Tom Bradshaw and Aiden O’Brien.
Jayson Molumby is also swift becoming a hit in South Bermondsey, with the Ireland Under-21s captain’s aggressive pressing fitting in nicely with the identity that Harris imposed and that Rowett is enhancing.
Stanley to end 2020 closer to the Championship than League Two
A bold shout, perhaps, given that Accrington Stanley possess by far the lowest budget in League One and are often forced to pluck gems from non-league. However, the success of Sam Finley – an all-action midfield who is pressing superbly this season – and Colby Bishop – a technical forward who has grabbed 10 goals – is testament to the setup at Stanley.
John Coleman and Jimmy Bell not only spot very good players that others miss, but they also nurture them to perform to the very best of their ability.
Stanley average 1.49 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.12 Against, giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 56.97% – they have the seventh-most compelling shot data in League One.
The Reds were not forced to sell key players last summer so if they can keep Bishop over the next eight months, across which time Dion Charles may start to become as clinical as this level demands, then maybe bring in another leader at the back to upgrade Mark Hughes, we could be looking at a team to get behind in 2020-21.
The League One promotion race will go to the final day
Unlike last season, when Luton and Barnsley were the two clear, stand-out teams in League One, we have no real runaways this year.
Although Wycombe are top the table, they have a small budget and have been depleted by injuries over the festive period; the Chairboys are likely to enter Spring hoping to secure a Play-Off place.
Ipswich, although second, have looked unconvincing for much of the campaign, so their ()-game winless run was coming – plus, it is questionable whether the board will identify the correct replacement for Paul Lambert if the Scot leaves.
Peterborough possess a defence and midfield nowhere near as good as their attack, Bristol Rovers and Blackpool have outperformed their shot data while Sunderland are suffering from a combination of pressure and poor leadership.
Until Sunday, Rotherham and Coventry had endured huge problems winning at home and away respectively; Portsmouth have also been poor on their travels as Fleetwood are out-of-form.
Oxford are arguably the most convincing candidate – and they were as low as eighth two weeks ago. Expect twists and turns right to the wire.
Bradford to finish outside the top seven
The Bantams look, on paper, to be well among the frontrunners for promotion in League Two and Gary Bowyer deserves credit for leading them into contention after a nightmare 18 months of nothing but defeats.
It has not quite clicked for the West Yorkshire outfit, though, in the final third, where there is a heavy reliance on nine-goal top scorer James Vaughan.
Vigorous veteran Vaughan netted two penalties in Sunday’s 2-0 win over Mansfield; those spot kicks accounted for two of just three shots on target from City, who mustered half as many efforts at goal as their visitors.
To Bradford’s credit, they have been well-organised, efficient and strong in their defence of the penalty area, but if they lose their clinical striker to injury – as history tells us is plausible – they could be found wanting for alternative ideas.
Cambridge to be in the top three in 12 months
Colin Calderwood’s Cambridge might only be 12th in League Two, but they average 1.29 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 0.99 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 56.69% – the best shot data in League Two, excluding leaders Swindon.
They have hit the woodwork 11 times, the joint-most in the division and are at times on the wrong end of fine margins.
Over the next eight months, Calderwood will have two opportunities to figure out how to shape the squad so that the team maintains it’s general performance levels whilst becoming stronger in both boxes.
That could be done by going big on a peak striker, with Marc Richards and Harvey Knibbs at either ends of their respective careers or adding players to bring natural width.
The Yellow and Black Army will of course lose playmaker Jack Roles, on loan from Tottenham, but Calderwood has the contacts to identify a worthy replacement.
We can expect young defender Harry Darling to continue to develop at an impressive rate; Paul Lewis can thrive in a box-to-box role while versatile midfielder Luke Hannant represents a sign that the club is starting to get its recruitment right.
Sections of Cambridge fans may need further re-enthusing, but the data says they are a team to get behind in 2020.
What do you think of my 6 Football League Predictions? Let me know in the comment section below or on twitter.
Championship – Millwall to reach the play-offs (9/2 PaddyPower)
League One – Accrington to finish in the top half (5/2 Betfair)
League Two – Cambridge to finish in the top half (17/10 Betfair)